Prologue: Purpose of the Post
So this blog post is simply a rant and if you are interested in my ranting then read on. You have been warned. I am not interested so much in defining the proper posture during Mass at the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer but seek to be able to express myself clearly on this matter. Last week I tried to give an opinion on what I think is the Church’s stance on this issue and another person, whom I had never met before, simply proceeded to use straw man arguments, ad hominem statements, and arguments from silence that brought about a more hostile environment for debate that I didn’t want or seek. I felt very frustrated at not being able to express myself because of this confrontational attitude. My fellow catechists, I have committed these sins before but let us remember the truth is not something we have as a weapon to wield against people and rudeness is certainly an obstacle for putting others in touch with Christ. The purpose of this post is to release my frustration from this incident by communicating my ideas without having my statements misrepresented or treated with contempt. Of course, there is some really good stuff down below and constructive dialogue about my ideas is always welcome because I don’t know everything.
No One Knows the Origin of Holding Hands At (the Novus Ordo) Mass
Some blame “Protestant” elements creeping into the liturgy or charismatics. Others think that it is in imitation of the priest in the “orans” (hands extended) position and blurs the distinction between the ministerial and common priesthoods. The truth is that we don’t know how holding hands during the liturgy developed. Both of these positions are probably just false conjectures and there really is no blurring of roles at Mass with this particular gesture, especially compared to other difficulties that are typically present. We can only be certain that the sixties and seventies were a time of great liturgical experimentation and liturgical hand-holding arose in this climate. It probably generated among some people to foster unity among themselves. There are already elements of unity such as participating in responses, singing together, having the same postures, etc., but all of these elements are primarily to bring us in communion with God and any communion with our fellow brothers and sisters is a secondary effect of this more important goal. Holding hands liturgically is an extraneous gesture at best that does not actually foster more communion at the liturgy because this is achieved in our fellowship with God (though it might make some people feel good with “warm fuzzies”). In fact, as suggested by Fr. Z and Fr. McNamara, this posture seems to be more distracting from our reconciliation with God that is supposed to occur at Mass by focusing on communion with each other as exemplified by the pressure one may feel to take another’s hand instead of focusing on this prayer of adoration and petition.
No Specific Law Against Hand-Holding Does Not Mean It is Permitted
The Mass is not about following a set of rules but about re-presenting Calvary and celebrating the faith of the Church, which is based upon the Deposit of Faith and her own theology. The rules, like the Decalogue, safeguard our relationship with God expressed in the liturgy if we need help knowing how to worship Him properly. It is true that there is no specific law from the Vatican or the bishops against holding hands. In 1975 the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments published an answer in their journal Notitiae if holding hands at the Our Father could replace the Sign of Peace. The congregation did not explicitly ban holding hands in this statement but simply asserted, “[Holding hands] is not found in the rubrics” and said the Sign of Peace could not be replaced. Now someone may think that the lack of a ban means that an action is permissible but this is not true. First of all, the journal Notitiae is not the place where the Holy See issues binding directives on the liturgy; the journal gives commentary and orients its audience on certain issues so there should be no surprise that there is no ban on anything. Secondly, the lack of a specific rule does not indicate it is permitted because there are also no specific rules on giving communion to pro-abortion politicians, polyamorous relationships, or forbidding the “orans” position for the laity during the Eucharistic prayer but each of these is forbidden based upon general theological principles applied to concrete situations. When there is no specific rule on an issue, theologians apply previous principles to new situations over time so that in the future some new theological principle may be formed to bring clarity to the faith. In regards to holding hands during Mass, we can find some principles that can guide us as to the correct posture at the Lord’s Prayer.
No Math: Thou Shalt Not Add or Subtract Anything From the Liturgy
Vatican II’s Sacrosantum Concilium taught that only the Apostolic See and bishops can regulate the liturgy. The Council teaches,
This was also repeated in the Code of Canon Law no. 846,
In celebrating the sacraments the liturgical books approved by competent authority are to be observed faithfully; accordingly, no one is to add, omit, or alter anything in them on one’s own authority.
Now these rules are not quite as restricting as they seem because they only pertain to liturgical actions, not private ones. Therefore, if a family or group of friends wants to hold hands at any point during the Mass, there is no problem. The difficulty arises when it becomes a non-approved liturgical act by the whole congregation. Once the whole congregation begins holding hands all together, it moves from being a private action to a liturgical action that even several bishops of the U.S. wanted to see discontinued. These are general norms against modifying the liturgy and as with all general rules, exceptions can be made but they are not to be assumed. Bishop Roger Foys of Covington and Colin Donovan of EWTN also use these general norms to show that holding hands as a liturgical action goes against Church directives.
Holding Hands Actually Goes Against the Meaning of the Liturgy
First, while many may focus on the word “Our” in the Lord’s Prayer, its purpose in the liturgy—like everything else—is to prepare us for communion with God that inevitably brings us unity with each other. Holding hands—liturgically of course, not as a private action—detracts from this end by putting the emphasis on other humans before God. The purpose and meaning of the liturgy is not to foster human unity but communion with God (a great article on the divine purpose of Mass and its four ends is found at The Catholic Gentleman). Secondly, Fr. Saunders notes that there is a progression of unity within the Mass and what is sought in holding hands is actually achieved in the reception of the Eucharist so this action is really misplaced because we act as if human communion is achieve before divine communion. This means that hand-holding during the Our Father is what Colin Donovan calls a gesture that contradicts the meaning of the liturgy. It is more important to participate in the full meaning of the liturgy and this is a better reason to not hold hands than to simply follow some rules. Thus, even the liturgy and theology inherent in it argues against holding hands in a liturgical manner.
The best article on the this topic is undoubtedly from canon lawyer Dr. Ed Peters, who notes that before Vatican II the priest alone recited the Lord’s Prayer in the “orans” position because this prayer was offered on behalf of the congregation. When the priest is praying with the congregation,—i.e. not on behalf of it—he prays with his hands joined as at the Gloria and Creed. Pope Pius XII, just before Vatican II, allowed the congregation to say this prayer with the priest but did not change the priest’s position from “orans” to a hands-joined posture possibly because of his death and Vatican II that came with John XXIII. Dr. Peters suggests this anomaly transferred unnoticed into the new Mass after Vatican II and this may be why some confusion has occurred. If the Lord’s Prayer is to be a prayer said by the priest with the congregation then it is more appropriate that the priest have his hands joined but of course not until such a change is approved by the Holy See because—after all—this post is about not changing things on our own initiative apart from the authorities.
The Takeaway: This is Not a Big Deal
Now that it has been shown that holding hands as a liturgical action goes against the meaning/theology of the liturgy, liturgical norms, and canonical norms, it follows that the Church actually has an authoritative stance on the issue even if it is not specified directly. The Church can’t be asked to specify every little thing. It took her nearly two thousand years to define the Immaculate Conception and papal infallibility. The teachings of Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix are not dogmatically defined yet but they are in the Church’s authoritative Tradition. Therefore, don’t hold hands as a liturgical act because it goes against the principles already laid down by the Church. A private act is fine. However, if someone offers their hand to you there is no need to push them away and reject them. This is really a minor—really really really minor—liturgical abuse and shrugging people off may mean you celebrated the liturgy according to the rules, but without charity you are nothing, especially to those who through no fault of their own might not understand. As Pope Francis reminds us, we aren’t to be a rigorist Church. A parish should only gradually move away from this action because many people are attached to it (heck my wife likes it and my students would tell on her saying she would hold hands at Mass when I wasn’t there). More important issues such as nuns reciting the Roman Canon and gingerbread for the Eucharist deserve attention that we absolutely should not participate in. Don’t get hung up on this. I’m sure Jesus isn’t sweating bullets hoping to see if you “do it right” but He is probably looking for love and obedience above all else. Remember, this post is more about me trying to communicate my point rather than die on a hill to make sure people aren’t holding hands. That would just be a waste of time.